That perches in the soul

As the end of the year squeezes the last drops out of everyone, we went on an outing back to Alexandra Township. In the heat and the dust and the noise we found hope.

December seems to have pounced on us like a hungry bird determined to peck away at the rapidly declining days of the last month of this year. December is already a short month full of holidays and in South Africa many businesses close down around the 15th making the month technically a half a month with a full month’s worth of stuff to get through.

The idea of slowing down seems the antithesis of what happens in reality. The days swipe by as more and more has to be squeezed into them. Clients and suppliers demand airtime, sales people cajole for dates in diaries, friends and colleagues hustle for space to have a last coffee, a lunch, a meeting before leaving for their holidays. And we are left puffing and panting trying to keep up while keeping our heads.


Less full, more free

We had this idea that we would be less full, more free as we completed all our major workshops and Saturday sessions coming into December. Nothing could be further from the truth. Granted quite a chunk of time is being spent with last minute catch ups with people we have not been able to see for about a year! It is that ridiculous.

There is also the final round of maintenance around the property that keeps Matthew on his toes with supplies that run out at the last minute and paint that needs to be purchased before the rains come. When the rain does come, being able to change plans and do work inside. The mess and noise and dust just adds to the chaos.

This is nothing compared to the chaos that we walked through on Saturday. Once again we found ourselves in Alex at the invitation of Sizanani, the organisation that hired us to train a cohort of peer coaches. Sizanani finds mentors to match up with learners who go to the Saturday school provided by Ikhusasa Lethu, St Mary’s School for Girls Foundation. This event was put together to give mentors an experience of Alexandra or Alex,as it is known by locals, the area that their mentees come from.


Established by Herbert Papenfus in 1912 and named for his wife, Alexandra Township stands as a testament to resilience, growing from a modest settlement to a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism at Johannesburg's doorstep.

Not much has improved

It was recommended that we travel by taxi as our car would not be safe in the streets of Alex. We were bounced from Uber, who does not go into Alex, to Bolt, who does. The streets of Alexrandra are squeezed narrow by cars parked on almost non-existent pavements. The Bolt taxi driver wove his way through the tight spaces and delivered us safely at the steps of the Alexandra Heritage Community Centre.

The centre is beautifully designed but has been neglected. Exhibits are dusty and sad, most of the television screens don’t work and there are gaps where frames used to hang but have been moved. There still is some story to follow, photos to view and a sense of how Alex started and the difficulties it has been through. Looking out of the window on the expanse of structures built on top of each other, rusty roofs warped and wilting, crumbling walls holding up lean-tos that jut out onto pavements, it doesn’t look like much has improved.

After the Heritage Centre we walked to visit a local gym, meeting the owner who is also an artist. He has coloured the walls on the streets around the gym with murals. Next we stopped at the room where Nelson Mandela stayed in 1941. After milling around, not sure what we were doing, ducking washing flapping on a line and cooing at a toddler left on a front step, we were organised into three groups and set off to visit a mentee's home.


Beneath the bright beams of Alexandra, a cheerful child cherishes the hallowed home where Mandela’s momentous journey commenced in 1941.

Invited in

It was hot. Energy sapping hot. There is no greenery, no trees, only tar, concrete and tin that magnifies the heat from the beating sun. The streets are noisy. Dust, dirt and the smell of garbage that sits soaked in filthy water from broken pipes fills your nostrils and stays there.

Men lounging in the shade of tavern verandahs, sit on broken chairs and wobbly benches and suck on Heineken quarts. It’s barely past 11am. Women huddle in tiny corrugated iron sheds open to the street having their hair braided. They have a long hot day ahead of them. The longer the braids, the longer the day and long braids are in fashion. Dark holes in the wall yawn black and stuffy and could be some kind of shop, barber or tavern. Who knows, they look the same kind of depressed and empty.

We walked up a short gravel driveway hemmed in by brick box buildings. Grey cement bricks spilled from a sagging bakkie with two flat tires, a small girl played in a pile of sand and young boys moved in and out of a half built room. We were graciously invited into the dwelling next to this mini construction site.

Seven of us squeezed into the room that served as the kitchen and sitting room and listened to the story of how this family came to live in Alexander. It was a story of desperation and need. Need of work and a place to stay. One room served as the home for the parents who, like so many thousands, had travelled to the city in search of work.


Amidst the laughter and tight-knit warmth of Alexandra, a family stands proud (right) outside the 'one room' that cradled their dreams and now witnesses one of their own striving towards a better future.

A story of one room

A story of six children left in the hands of a grandmother who, because she did not like her daughter-in law, did not treat her grandchildren well. These six being brought to live in the one room with their parents because at least they would be fed and loved. One room. Eight bodies. A story of seven having to brave the early morning cold outdoors while one by one they took turns to go inside for the privacy to bathe and get ready for the day.

The little sitting room-kitchen was added on at a later stage providing a modicum of space but not much if there are eight. The mother told us that it was noisy with a tavern on either side of them and a busy road behind. Taxis started hooting at 4am in the morning. The mentee would stay at school to study until 6pm because it was impossible to do so at home. She worked hard and has just completed her first year of a degree in education.

“What is your dream?” someone asked her.

“To finish my degree, get a job and leave Alex,” she replied without any hesitation. “To take my parents out of Alex.” she added.

Hope is the thing

Education is viewed as the means out of poverty in this country. Unfortunately too many fall through the cracks of a system that offers only the basics and little else unless you have means. This is where foundations such as Ikhusasa Lethu with its Saturday schools and Sizanani mentor and peer coach programmes make such a difference.

In a country where there is so much need, every single child that gets the opportunity to better themselves despite their circumstances is a victory. These young people will become the adult leaders of the future. These are the young people that give others hope.

As we sat there in the dark room listening to this young woman, seeing her smile, her eyes shining bright, we were in awe of her achievements. She gives us hope and hope is a wonderful thing to have at this time of the year.

To end this last newsletter of 2023 we leave you with this poem by Emily Dickinson:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers


Chantal reads the short poem about “Hope” by Emily Dickinson. To be hopeful is to be courageous in the face of obstacles and challenges. Hope is generative and centering, it gets us through the dark days. Here's to hope.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.

If you would like to hear the poem being read by Chantal we have a recording of it ▶️.

Happy holidays full of hope and a safe festive season. See you in the new year.

Until next time.

Yours in feeling,
Matthew & Chantal

Posted in

About the author

5th Place

5th Place is a dynamic organization that's passionate about emotional fitness. We're the creators of Shape of Emotion, a revolutionary tool that's changing the way we understand and manage our emotions. But we're not just about theory - we're about practical, tangible change.

We offer Emotional Fitness Classes and courses that help individuals, from children to adults, build emotional resilience and well-being. For our younger audience, we've created the Vibarealm, a vibrant universe that encourages a healthier interaction with emotions.

Join us on this journey to emotional fitness and let's make the world a better place together.

Explore related categories

Recent posts


Interested in how 5th Place can support you?

Here's two ways to connect with us